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20 Best Graduation Speeches to Read When You Need Some Solid Life Advice

Including Ree Drummond's own speech at OSU!

By Micaela Bahn
preview for Best Commencement Advice for New Graduates

Graduation season is just around the corner and we don't know about you, but hearing a great commencement speech always brings on the waterworks. Whether you're a graduate yourself or just a proud parent, there's something about those final words of wisdom that stick with you long after the diplomas are handed out. That's why we've rounded up some of the best graduation speeches of all time filled with uplifting quotes and funny one-liners. These graduation quotes are sure to inspire and motivate, and they'll remind any graduate that they've got what it takes to succeed no matter what challenges lie ahead.

First up, we've got the Pioneer Woman herself—Ree Drummond's iconic keynote address at Oklahoma State University. Ree has witnessed her fair share of milestones with the Drummond kids—she just recently attended Paige's college graduation! And who could forget Oprah Winfrey's speech to the class of 2020? In this heartfelt and emotional address, Winfrey encourages graduates to find their purpose in life and make a difference in the world. Those two are just a taste of what's to come. So, turn on the graduation songs, grab your tissues, and get ready for some solid life advice. Whether you're a recent graduate or just in need of a little pick-me-up, these speeches are sure to leave you feeling inspired and ready to take on whatever life throws your way.

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Ree Drummond: Oklahoma State University, 2022

graduation speeches ree drummond
Oklahoma State University

Ree hardly needs an introduction, but she knows a thing or two about life as a published author, Food Network host, and most importantly, mother of five.

"Buckle up, you have good times and rough seas ahead. It is just part of life, but enjoy the ride and laugh a lot... Life is about to unfold for you in all its forms. Love, heartache, accomplishments, disappointment, testing of faith... life is beautiful, so I repeat, buckle up and laugh along the way. It makes life fun."


Steve Jobs: Stanford University, 2005

graduation speeches steve jobs
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The entrepreneur, inventor, and pioneer of the personal computer revolution had his fair share of ups and downs in life. But one of the things that made him so persistent was his love of technology.

"You've got to find what you love. And that is as true for your work as it is for your lovers. Your work is going to fill a large part of your life and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven't found it yet, keep looking. Don't settle. As with all matters of the heart, you'll know when you find it."


Neil Gaiman: University of the Arts, 2012

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Neil Gaiman Addresses the University of the Arts Class of 2012
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Neil wasn't always an acclaimed author of fiction, comic books, graphic novels, nonfiction, and films. His speech may have been given to a group of young artists, but the advice applies to anyone starting out in a turbulent career.

"People who know what they are doing know the rules, and they know what is possible and what is impossible. You do not. And you should not. The rules on what is possible and impossible in the arts were made by people who had not tested the bounds of the possible by going beyond them. And you can. If you don't know it's impossible, it's easier to do. And because nobody's done it before, they haven't made up rules to stop anyone doing that particular thing again."

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Oprah Winfrey: Class of 2020 Virtual Speech

graduation speeches oprah winfrey
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Oprah had one of the hardest commencement speeches to give: it was for the class that graduated during the pandemic. She found a profound lesson in the chaos of those early months.

"Look who turns out to be essential! Teachers—your teachers!—healthcare workers of course, the people stocking grocery shelves, the cashiers, those who are caring for your grandparents, those who clean the places where we work and shop and carry out our daily lives. We are all here because they, at great and profound risk, are still providing their essential service. What will your essential service be? What really matters to you? How will you use what matters in service to yourself, your community, and the world?"


George Saunders: Syracuse University, 2013

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George Saunders Commencement Speech 2013
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Bestselling author and professor George Saunders offered grads a guiding principle to move through life with, no matter what they pursue.

"Travel, get rich, get famous, innovate, lead, fall in love, make and lose fortunes, swim naked in wild jungle rivers (after first having it tested for monkey poop)—but as you do, to the extent that you can, err in the direction of kindness. Do those things that incline you toward the big questions, and avoid the things that would reduce you and make you trivial. That luminous part of you that exists beyond personality—your soul, if you will—is as bright and shining as any that has ever been."


Admiral William H. McRaven: University of Texas at Austin, 2014

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Admiral McRaven addresses the University of Texas at Austin Class of 2014
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During Admiral McRaven's speech at his alma mater, he looked to the lessons he learned serving his country. One of which was so simple, yet profoundly impactful.

"If you make your bed every morning, you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter... And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made—that you made—and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better."

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Nora Ephron: Wellesley College, 1996

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Nora Ephron speaking at Wellesley College Commencement 1996
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When Nora Ephron wasn't reporting, she was writing some of our most beloved romantic comedies. She reassured grads that they will always continue to change and grow.

"What are you going to do? Everything is my guess. It will be a little messy but embrace the mess. It will be complicated but rejoice in the complications. It will not be anything like what you think it's going to be like, but surprises are good for you. And don't be frightened. You can always change your mind. I know. I've had four careers and three husbands. And this is something else I want to tell you, one of the hundreds of things I didn't know when I was sitting here so many years ago: you are not going to be you, fixed and immutable you, forever."


Toni Morrison: Wellesley College, 2004

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Toni Morrison disputed the usual platitude that youth is the best time of your life. Instead, she told students that there is nothing more satisfying or gratifying than the true adulthood which stretches out before them.

"What is now known is not all that you are capable of knowing. You are your own stories and therefore free to imagine and experience what it means to be human without wealth. What it feels like to be human without domination over others, without reckless arrogance, without fear of others unlike you, without rotating, rehearsing and reinventing the hatreds you learned in the sandbox. And although you don't have complete control over the narrative (no author does, I can tell you), you could nevertheless create it."


Conan O'Brien: Dartmouth College, 2011

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Conan O'Brien's Dartmouth Commencement Address Highlights
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This famous late-night host delivered a hilarious graduation speech riddled with stories, each with their own lesson.

"David Letterman wanted to be Johnny Carson and was not, and as a result, my generation of comedians wanted to be David Letterman. And none of us are—my peers and I have all missed that mark in a thousand different ways. But the point is this: It is our failure to become our perceived ideal that ultimately defines us and makes us unique. It's not easy, but if you accept your misfortune and handle it right, your perceived failure can be a catalyst for profound re-invention."

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Barbara Kingsolver: DePauw University, 1994

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1994 - Author Barbara Kingsolver '77 Speaks at Her Alma Mater's Commencement
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The sentiment of Barbara Kingsolver's speech resonates today just as much as it did in 1994.

"I'm going to go out on a limb here and give you one little piece of advice and that is like the idea of a future. Believe you have it in you to make the world look better rather than worse seven generations from now. Figure out what that could look like. And then if you're lucky, you'll find a way to live inside that hope, running down its hallways, touching the walls on both sides."


Hamdi Ulukaya: Northeastern University, 2022

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Hamdi Ulukaya | Class of 2022 Commencement Speaker
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You may not know his name, but you might just love Chobani, the hugely successful yogurt brand Hamdi started. He reminded graduates why we are here on earth.

"As we started to grow, we hired everyone that we could. I realized an hour away there was a community of refugees who were having a hard time finding jobs. I said, 'Let's hire them.' I promise you that there is nothing more rewarding than showing up in the world for other people, no matter how hard it may be."


Ken Burns: Stanford University, 2016

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In his 2016 Stanford speech, America's most famous documentary filmmaker asked listeners not to forget the lessons found in our history.

"Be for something. Be curious, not cool. Feed your soul, too. Every day. Remember, insecurity makes liars of us all. Don't confuse success with excellence. Educate all of your parts. You will be healthier. Seek out—and have—mentors. Listen to them. Bite off more than you can chew. Do not get stuck in one place. Visit our national parks. Their sheer majesty may remind you of your own 'atomic insignificance,' as one observer noted, but in the inscrutable ways of nature, you will feel larger, inspirited, just as the egotist in our midst is diminished by his or her self-regard. Insist on heroes. And be one."

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Kerry Washington: George Washington University, 2013

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Actress Kerry Washington told graduates to think of this achievement during the difficult or uncomfortable parts of life.

"The lesson is that you're here because you too learned how to answer the call. You don't earn a degree by doing and being and existing in the comfort zone of what you already know. Look back on the journey that brought you here. What moments challenged you most? When were you asked to step outside of your familiar territory in order to rise to the occasion of your potential? I want you to remember those moments, because they will embolden you."


Dr. Marie Lynn Miranda: University of Notre Dame, 2021

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Notre Dame Commencement 2021: Provost Marie Lynn Miranda's Address to the Graduate School
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As obvious as it sounds, you don't know what you don't know. That's the lesson from this acclaimed Notre Dame professor and environmental researcher.

"As much as I want to highlight the importance of the expertise you have developed, I also want to make the point that you will face situations in the years ahead where you will have no relevant expertise; you will have no evidence base to rely upon; your intellect will not be able to supply a needed answer. In those situations, I would like to suggest that you respond with love."


Atul Gawande: Williams College, 2012

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Atul Gawande, Commencement Speaker: Williams Commencement 2012
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Being a surgeon means you have to think on your feet when things go wrong, and for Dr. Gawande, that holds an immense life lesson.

"A failure often does not have to be a failure at all. However, you have to be ready for it. Will you admit when things go wrong? Will you take steps to set them right? Because the difference between triumph and defeat, you'll find, isn't about willingness to take risks. It's about mastery of rescue."

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John F. Kennedy: American University, 1963

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During the turbulence of the early sixties, then-president John F. Kennedy delivered a rallying cry to students entering the world: choose peace.

"Let us not be blind to our differences, but let us also direct attention to our common interests and to the means by which those differences can be resolved. And if we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity. For, in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children's future. And we are all mortal."


Sheryl Sandberg: UC Berkeley, 2016

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Sheryl Sandberg Gives UC Berkeley Commencement Keynote Speech
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The former COO of Facebook offered graduates a realistic look at the life ahead and how to move through the hard times.

"Some of you have already experienced the kind of tragedy and hardship that leave an indelible mark. The question is not if some of these things will happen to you. They will. Today I want to talk about what happens next. The easy days ahead of you will be easy. It is the hard days—the times that challenge you to your very core—that will determine who you are. You will be defined not just by what you achieve but by how you survive."


Bill Gates: Harvard University, 2007

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Who wouldn't take the Microsoft founder's advice?

"In line with the promise of this age, I want to exhort each of the graduates here to take on an issue—a complex problem, a deep inequity, and become a specialist on it. If you make it the focus of your career, that would be phenomenal. But you don't have to do that to make an impact... don't let complexity stop you. Be activists. Take on big inequities. I feel sure it will be one of the great experiences of your lives."

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Aaron Sorkin: Syracuse University, 2012

graduation speeches aaron sorkin
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Aaron has carved an incredible career writing plays, movies, and television shows, but success clearly hasn't impacted his sense of humility.

"Decisions are made by those who show up. Don't ever forget that you're a citizen of this world. Don't ever forget that you're a citizen of this world, and there are things you can do to lift the human spirit, things that are easy, things that are free, things that you can do every day: civility, respect, kindness, character."


Tim Cook: Tulane University, 2019

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Tim Cook took a similar approach to his late co-worker Steve Jobs when it came to the theme of his graduation speech.

"There's a saying that if you do what you love, you'll never work a day in your life. At Apple, I learned that's a total crock. You'll work harder than you ever thought possible, but the tools will feel light in your hands. As you go out into the world, don't waste time on problems that have been solved... Look for the rough spots, the problems that seem too big, the complexities that other people are content to work around. It's in those places that you will find your purpose. It's there that you can make your greatest contribution."

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Micaela Bahn

Micaela Bahn is a freelance editorial assistant and recent graduate from Carleton College, where she majored in English literature. She loves running, photography, and cooking the best new recipes.

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